WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. John McCain opened Ashton Carter’s confirmation hearing Wednesday morning (Feb. 4) with a list of complaints about wasteful Pentagon spending, including accusing the Air Force of “actively keeping” SpaceX out of the national security launch market.

“The cost of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle has exploded from around $100 million per launch to $400 million per launch over the last 15 years after the Air Force allowed years of sole-source contracts while, especially over the last few months, actively keeping out any other companies from competing,” the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman told Carter, President Obama’s choice to succeed Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.

“Hopefully this year we will see the Air Force certify a new entrant, and this competition can finally bring down costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines,” McCain said in his opening statement.

Although McCain did not mention SpaceX by name, there can be little doubt he was talking about the Hawthorne, California-based company’s ongoing effort to break into a national security launch market dominated by United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that builds and operates the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets developed under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

In the short clip below, Sen. McCain accuses the Air Force of “actively keeping out any other companies from competing” for national security launch contracts.

The Air Force had expected to certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket before the end of 2014 but recently conceded that the certification might take until as late as mid-2015, a delay that triggered an independent review of the service’s processes.

McCain, for his part, has been a persistent critic of the Air Force’s reliance on United Launch Alliance for all but a handful of U.S. national security launches.

Last April, after the Air Force reduced the number of such launches it intends to put out for competitive bids through late 2017, McCain asked the Pentagon’s inspector general to investigate the decision.

In June, McCain wrote the Pentagon’s acquisition czar, Frank Kendall, to question whether the Defense Department is overpaying for the Atlas 5’s Russian-built RD-180 engine.


Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.